The other night I was in a room full of fabulously-gendered undergrads, designing material for a poster campaign to be distributed around Cambridge. Our focus was simply to inform people how to make the little changes needed to make everyday life more comfortable for trans folk. Stuff like not making assumptions over which pronouns to use. Because, so I thought, the main struggle trans students in Cambridge face nowadays is a lack of awareness. Surely well-informed people wouldn’t actually oppose us having our gender, or in some cases lack of it, recognised, and wanting to be treated accordingly?
For me, as a white trans guy in a liberal city, this is broadly true. Being a trans man isn’t all rosy, but at least (with the right nudging) intelligent people tend to accept our gender. But how naïve I’ve been. Last week I’ve been horrified by two reminders of the transmisogyny which is very much alive and kicking among influential figures connected to Cambridge.
Germaine Greer’s invitation to speak at the Union is one example. In case it passed you by, this is the same former Newnham fellow who campaigned against the appointment of another Newnham fellow on the grounds that she is a trans woman and therefore – according to Dr. Greer – undeserving of a place within an all-female college. The kind of discrimination Dr. Greer called for is not just morally reprehensible but now thoroughly illegal under the Equalities Act (2010). Greer has expressed such gems as the idea that trans women wouldn’t seek to transition if this involved acquiring a uterus and ovaries (The Whole Woman, 1999) and in a Guardian column in 2009 described trans women as a ‘ghastly parody’ and under a ‘delusion’.
The Union were asked to disinvite Germaine Greer (I’m not sure why they thought inviting her in the first place was a good idea) but declined, saying that they offer a platform to any speaker their members are likely to find interesting. Presumably, then, Union members’ opinion of a guest does impact their invitation. But someone with Dr. Greer’s history of unapologetic transmisogyny is not ‘interesting’; she and her views are damaging and threatening. In this situation the Union have chosen to put the unguaranteed intellectual interests of their cisgender members over and above the rights and wellbeing of their trans members.
Coincidentally this week, a blog post came to light by our dear Green Party candidate, Rupert Read, in which he references and tries to expand this same line of transmisogynistic thought. Dr. Read accuses trans women of trying to create an ‘ ‘opt-in’ version of what it is to be a woman’ and trying to deny that trans women deserve to be accepted as women – while claiming, later in the post, to ‘reject transphobia out of hand’ and have the ‘greatest of sympathy for trans-sexuals’. (His language there alone shows how out of touch he is with the transgender population)
Now first off, to me it makes little sense for Read, as a cisgender man, to try to define the criteria for womanhood – something he neither identifies ‘psychically’ as nor has ‘lived experience including bodily experience’ of. (According to him, the latter is of utmost importance if one is to be accepted as a woman without question). His essay is filled with ideas completely at odds with the neurobiological science behind gender identity – for as research shows time and again, gender is a question of connectivity within the brain rather than what lies within the pelvic girdle. I shall not attempt to unpick the errors sentence-by-sentence here. What is more important is that these two great minds – Greer and Read – hold and air views that are deeply dehumanising and oppressive towards trans women.
Of course, there has been a backlash against our ‘no-platforming’ and refusal to engage with Greer. Now as a medic, I am a scientist of sorts and my instinct is to research and question. I do not oppose informed discussion. Some things, though, are not up for debate; there are some lines that cannot be crossed and the validity of someone’s gender is one of them. Fundamental to our problem here is that this is a level of oppression the cisgender population simply cannot comprehend, because the concept of someone trying to deny them their gender simply doesn’t exist. And since they cannot understand the concept, they are not adequately informed to question it. Engaging in debate over these issues where there is a one-sided inability to understand what is going on would just be damaging and destructive.
I am sure Rupert Read and Germaine Greer are perfectly capable of realising this, but instead they chose to dehumanise trans women and make their gender the subject of a thought experiment, all supposedly in the name of Feminism. This is not a case of mere transphobia; the consistent decision to single out trans women as a group and deny the validity of their identity shows that something even more ugly is at play here: this is transmisogyny.
When I took on my role as trans rep for CUSU LGBT+ I had a lot to learn. My privilege as a trans man, rather than a trans woman, had protected me from transmisogyny and I had not been forced to experience it like so many of those I represent have. I’m ashamed to say that learning to back down, shut up and listen to trans women was a fundamental part of shouldering my responsibilities properly; and I am very aware I still have a lot of educating myself to do. Such realisations are never pleasant, but very necessary. Rupert Read has at least shown some remorse for what he has done. But he needs to back up his words with actions. He needs to step down, go away and educate himself before he even thinks about running for Parliament again. I sincerely hope he is wise enough to do so.
This article was written some time before its publication. After the Rupert Read controversy, the Green party and Read have made noted efforts to engage with the trans and wider LGBT+ community here in Cambridge.